The Vice President and the Mulatto
Half-hidden in the pages of history is a fascinating story of race, sex and politics in 19th-Century America.
Let’s begin in the present with Brenda Gene Gordon, a 67-year-old white woman in Chandler, Ariz., who has been researching her family’s history.
Mrs. Gordon is a direct descendant of a U.S. vice president. But she only discovered that fact in recent years. Her ancestor is Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, the ninth vice president of the United States (1837-1841). He served under Martin Van Buren.
How on earth could Brenda Gordon not have known that her great-great-great-grandfather was Vice President Richard M. Johnson? Wasn’t this fact passed proudly from generation to generation inside her family?
No, it was not.
Why not? Because the woman who bore Johnson’s two children — a woman named Julia Chinn — was, by law, a Negro. And in Johnson’s time (not to mention since), this was scandalous.
“I grew up never hearing the names Richard M. Johnson (even in Kentucky history classes) or Julia Chinn,” Mrs. Gordon wrote to me during a recent email exchange.
How much of a “Negro” was Julia Chinn? Well, she was a slave… a slave Richard Johnson inherited from his father. She was “Negro” enough that Johnson couldn’t have married her legally.
Yet she was, in effect, his common-law wife.
Richard Mentor Johnson
“She was the hostess at his Kentucky home when [French aristocrat] the Marquis de Lafayette visited,” wrote Lindsey Apple, a retired Georgetown College history professor, in answer to questions from me.
Evidently Julia Chinn was one-eighths black (i.e., she had one black great-grandparent). She was described as a “mulatto” but she was, more precisely, an “octoroon.”
No paintings of Julia are known to exist, but she must’ve been very light-skinned. Her two daughters by Richard M. Johnson — Imogene Chinn Johnson and Adaline Chinn Johnson — both married white men.
Which means that Imogene and Adaline became bona fide, fully vested white people. And well-off ones, because Richard Johnson gave some of his farmland to each of them and their husbands.
Extraordinary. Especially when you consider that Richard Mentor Johnson was a politician.
His public career included terms in the Kentucky state legislature (1804-1806; 1819), the U.S. House of Representatives (1807-1819; 1829-1837) and the U.S. Senate (1819-1829) prior to his becoming vice president.
I still can’t figure out how he managed to get elected and re-elected (in Kentucky!) when his love life with a Negro slave was pretty much an open secret.
Johnson’s political enemies sure did their best to spread the word about his babies’ mama.
Duff Green, a partisan journalist of the era, is said to have described Julia Chinn as “a jet-black, thick-lipped, odiferous negro wench.” Duff declared it to be “astonishing” that Richard Johnson had “reared a family of children whom he endeavored to force upon society as equals.”
Prof. Apple, in his email, told me: “Some of the propaganda, i.e. mudslinging said he tried to introduce his wife and daughters into Washington society. I have found no evidence to substantiate that.”
But Johnson did dote on his daughters, and he saw to it that Imogene and Adaline were well-educated.
It’s indicative of the historical fog surrounding Julia Chinn that author Roger G. Kennedy stated incorrectly, in his 1990 book Rediscovering America, that Julia “served as the vice president’s official hostess in Washington.”
As Prof. Apple points out, “Julia died in the cholera epidemic of 1833,” several years before Johnson took office as vice president. And during Johnson’s years in Congress, Julia stayed behind in Kentucky, overseeing his large farm.
At least Roger Kennedy knows there’s a story here. He described Julia Chinn as a “deliberately forgotten woman.”
Forgotten indeed. But she does lurk in the annals of U.S. political history. I’ll write about that in my next post.